Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Undertow/Underworld : The Backstory

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Some of the beaches that I know and love look almost too inviting. But what a newcomer to Fanore Beach on Ireland's West coast needs to be told is that it has an undertow. There is only so deep you should go at the southern end of this long strand, and only at certain times of the day too. I knew all this, and was free with my advice to newcomers. That did not prevent me one day from being drawn down the coast and out to sea, from that self-same beach.

But I had been too distracted by the bracing water, and the shock of getting into it in the first place. I had also believed that the tide was coming in – and I was also keen to see if I could spot dolphins there. All in all, the ‘plot’ for those hours on that August afternoon was in place, and proceeding in the Atlantic where ‘swim’ = cold bath. 'But sure we’re used to it,' as they say.

This story playing through my mind was suddenly upended. That moment came when I just had to admit that, even as I increased my strokes, I was not gaining the shore. Slowly, calmly, inexorably, an undetrow was drawing me out. Three seconds of panic is about as much as is allowed before trouble starts that can’t be stopped. You can’t fight a riptide, you have to work with it, tack across it to landfall, cheat it.

Onshore – an impossible distant place that now sank from sight and rose and sank again with the waves - everything was going on normally there, as though life was taking place another world. The top part of my brain, the one that was going to let me think rationally here, accepted that waving was useless. I was out quite a distance. Shouting might turn out even worse. That’s how you swallow water and you drown. The wind would not carry sound into shore anyway, and there were few enough people on the beach, fewer still in the water. No boats, no lifeguards, no fellow-swimmers (= lunatics?)

There’d be no walking leadenly over the pebbles at the water’s edge like I always did. No grabbing an old towel, no shivering and trudging up to our spot and mooching for some crisps (‘Chips’) and a drink. No putting the kids to bed later and sneaking down to the local to listen to the music. No nothing really.
The waves that had been part of the fun were now immense, uncaring, threatening beings. They might not breaking at their tips out there, but they were certainly growing in size and strength. This enormous moving mass had taken over all around me. If it did not have bad intentions, then it seemed to have complete and callous indifference to me. Me, with my grand designs, my important needs, my survival.

In a very short time, all I had was a sky, bits of the shore and the far hills inland, this huge, heaving mass of water. With it came a grim certainty that if this was going to ‘get fixed’, it would be me and only me doing it. Panic # 2 arrived, and again was dealt with. I don’t doubt that any marine creatures in hearing range heard these words repeated aloud by this pathetic primate being swept away: ‘Must not panic, must not panic.’

Motivation wasn’t lacking: I had two kids onshore, blithely and busily digging a huge sand castle. Their mother, a visitor who had come to love Ireland, couldn’t – couldn’t! – be left to bring them up alone. The stupidity of blundering into this was painfully embarrassing, shaming. Anger isn’t motivation, but it’ll do: I was angry at this malignant thing around me. It was denying me what I willed, almost mocking my efforts. It – ‘it,’ ‘something’ - had snuck up on me and now threatened to knock me from my rightful place at the centre of the universe. And extinguish me.

It is funny, funny peculiar, what one does by reflex and by habit, even – especially! - in a state of fear. Some centres shut down, while others become intently sensitive and aware of minutae: a slightly different taste of the water here? Cloud shapes like that? A discernible rhythm to how the water was moving? Panic # 3 then, when I saw how quickly I had gone down the coast here. Treading water and saving energy is the game. I remembered to stick to it, and also to wait for an opening before the distances opened up and the strong offshore current drew me out to sea completely.

I was lucky – and I knew there was a rocky headland somewhere to the south. ‘Somewhere’ indeed. Sensing a slight change in the way the water stirred my legs was enough for me to take a flyer. I struck out obliquely for where the swell showed waves whitening. I learned later that a geological feature here may have created a pocket of water that slowed the tidal pull.
I was utterly played out by the time I got to those rocks. Scrapes and bruises were welcome. I walked back over a field to the beach, and managed to get back down to the water, from which spot I ambled up with the most unconcerned look I could muster. Not wanting to frighten the kids, I get back into sand castles and crisps and ‘lemonade’ (= pop) It was only later, at band-aid time, that I told my wife.

I haven’t gone in the water there since. It is still one of my favourite beaches, but now it’s for different reasons.

I think that day quite often, and remember it very acutely. I learned a lot that day.

I was thinking of this lovely summer’s misadventure on the beach this morning when I was re-reading parts of the story I’m working on, ‘Haywire.’ There is a backstory – hate the word, by the way, but my efforts to use other words floundered to date (‘figure/ground,’ ‘ecosystem,’ etc) - that looms so large now that it threatens to sweep the ‘real’ story out to sea.

The backstory is the continuing financial crisis in Ireland, and the fallout from this calamity. Cheap credit was the financial drug that pulled down the Celtic Tiger. It is easy and partly correct to point the finger at lousy economic planning and institutional oversight and controls, but people were complicit also and greed took over. The pushers of that financial drug, the Irish banks, have imploded under the weight of debts. Poor oversight in Ireland and in the European Union generally, along with exploding government debt and deficit levels, have put the state into receivership.

The EU ‘bail-out’ brought with them an insistence on financial austerity. This means cutbacks in government services, higher and more taxes, sell-offs of state assets, and reform of labour markets and foreign investment rules. There is anger in Ireland over this, and protest. Many see this as Ireland losing the sovereignty that was hard won, and also the unfair loading of private bond-holder debt (from the failed Irish banks) loaded on to taxpayers. But there is also resignation, as people accept that there are consequences for ‘blowing money they never had. Who pays the piper calls the tune.

Emigration has returned to Irish households Over 1000 Irish people a week are emigrating, and it is not known who may return. A consolation is that it is young and well-educated and confident Irish people emigrating, people used to travel, people who may return. The psychological toll is enormous nonetheless.

For those remaining in Ireland, the housing bubble that the banks served up, that abetted by government (Ireland and EU) and succumbed to by citizens looking for the good life on someone else’s savings, continues to crash. In ‘ghost estates’ around Ireland, are thousands of vacant half-built houses.

Tens of thousands of homeowners now hold ‘underwater’ mortgages, and with more unemployment on the way due to a shrinking economy and low demand, these families may never be able to make their payments – much less ever pay off the mortgages themselves. The numbers of people in financial distress are growing. The black economy is making a comeback. People turn to looking the other way. Misdemeanours and sharp practices blur into something else, all excused by bitterness and cynicism. Loan sharking, protection rackets, smuggling, extortion are increasingly seen as options.

This turmoil reaches everywhere, and the underworld is no exception. There is extensive organized crime in Ireland, run both by syndicates / groups / ‘families’ of native born Irish nationals, and gangs based overseas. There are alliances between them, often shifting quickly, and recombining. The IRA have split – again! – into groups that support the peace agreement in the North, and those who don’t. In working class areas of Irish cities and towns, a feud continues between ‘Continuity’ and ‘Real’ splinter groups, one that is usually concerned with who will control the drug trade in given areas.

There high rate of drug abuse in Ireland and the availability of weapons and criminal increasingly prone to lethal violence, make for a thriving drug trade, both nationally and for internationally. Gangs morph, fight, morph again. Leading figures are murdered, maimed, forced to leave the country for their survival. Some bide their time in Europe, and form new alliances with a dazzling variety of criminal groups there. ‘Old’ gangs are soon swept away as new alliances form and break up in turn, often violently.

The police force in Ireland, the Guards, are not immune to these wrenching changes. After much modernization and investment in the boom years, the Guards have had heavy blows delivered to their capacities and to their morale lately. Police who were armed only recently as a response to the burgeoning violence in Irish crime are now being told that budget cutbacks will result in removing their firearms. New pension measures have prompted a very large number of senior, experienced coppers to retire also. Guards are attacked with frequency. Though not always serious, these attacks demonstrate a sea change in attitudes to the Guards, a general disrespect and even antipathy.

Pensioners are being hit for taxes, and health, social service and educational services are being cut back too. Cruelly, special programmes for students with learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities are also in retreat. As with senior Guards, many experienced teachers are rushing to the retirement door also.

It is a bleak picture. There is widespread anger and cynicism, and disgust at how prosperity was squandered. The old mores and assumptions are all receiving harsh examination, and many are summarily discarded – the Catholic hierarchy, the probity of the local bank manager, the members of parliament and local councils who are dismally unqualified and self-seeking. Even the pride in being Irish has been scarred. Is this what kind of a people we really are, goes the rhetorical questioning? Venal, stupid, so easily taken in? The dependable and durable Irish responses of my parents’ generation lives on though: a quiet determination to carry on, and to do what can be done and keep one’s head up.

It’s all a fabulous tapestry of textures and colours for a backstory, no? Irresistible. And like St Brendan the Navigator who, legend goes, stepped off his ship on what he thought was dry land and prepared to light a fire but was soon to find he had landed on a whale, I jump on it. Thus I am finding that it is not just a refreshing swim, or a nice spit of land to alight on out here – it’s moving, and it’s taking me with it.

Here are the elements in the story that are in this undertow:

- A gangster’s doted-on grand-daughter who has Downs Syndrome, and whose family is cast into crisis.

- A gangster’s right-hand man, his consigliere, who now sees after all these years that there is no loyalty.

- A cop who sees that ‘crime’ in Ireland is something else – ‘How do you rob a bank? You OWN IT.’

- A detective in an elite gangs unit whose life is falling apart because he rode the boom, buying bigger and bigger houses for his social climbing spouse.

- A gangster’s ailing wife who needs cancer treatment that she must pay for, while her husband is in jail.

- IRA hoodlums who want to take over a jailed gangster's trade.

- Characters who now see that it is every man for himself:
A ranking police officer who is drunk on his own power and rep, and will stop at nothing, legal or otherwise.

These characters caught me in a collective twenty-mile stare yesterday, and froze me at the keyboard. Without saying a word, these intensely real people have intimated that pretty well any one of them has the power to derail the plot. My job, it seems, is to face them down…?

I may be back in the water again, feeling the first hints that I am not in command out here.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page